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Wandering Visions

If you know me, you know something of what I am about to present to you. If you don’t know me, chances are you’ve never heard of the following dream come true.

For thirteen years the Vision Festival, which I am proud to be a participant in, has led a nomadic existence. Wandering from one venue to another, this brave band of Visionaries—with the stalwart Patricia Nicholson (dancer/choreographer and wife of the great bassist/composer William Parker) at the helm and a shifting cast of characters amongst the faithful—has plodded through the institutionalized, gentrified, money-hungry waters of the Lower East Side, bringing with it always a sense of unity, community, creativity, and artistic integrity.

The festival is a floating institution of architects without a permanent structure, yet with all the blueprints needed to construct the perfect architecture—one of harmony and utopian ideals, surviving all the adversity that follows something new, vibrant, anti-commercial, and fiercely independent.

The Vision Festival’s spiritual roots go way back into jazz history, including Mingus’s Newport Rebels, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) out of Chicago, and the BAG (Black Artists’ Group) from St. Louis. Here at home, its predecessors can be found in the seventies Loft Jazz scene with such ventures as Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea, which produced the famous Wildflowers sessions; Studio We; Environ; Lady’s Fort; (Rashied) Ali’s Alley; Ornette Coleman’s Artist House on Prince Street; the Sound Unity Festival co-founded by bassist Peter Kowald, funded at first by artist A. R. Penck and presented at Cuando (the building now gone, condos in its place); the old Knitting Factory and the Kraine Gallery; the Stork Festival (created by William Parker); and Vision’s direct parent, the Improviser’s Collective in the early nineties. What makes these special is that all of them were, like the Vision Festival, completely artist-run. Most, though, as with Mingus’s attempt, were short-lived, and some, like Rivers’ and Ornette’s, had “permanent” homes for a while.

After two years of presenting mixed-media concerts at the Improviser’s Collective, Nicholson and saxophonist Assif Tsahar decided to go for broke and begin an all-out interdisciplinary festival that would last for more than a week. Since then it has ranged in scope from five to eleven days, and has begun to include commissioned pieces as well as praise days for special musicians both living and dead each year, such as Jimmy Lyons, Ed Blackwell, Don Cherry, Fred Anderson, Billy Higgins, and Bill Dixon.

Most of the money for the Vision Festival has been raised privately or through grants. And this may well be the first time in U.S. history that an artist-run, not-for-profit, avant-garde jazz festival has survived this long with, in Scott Currie’s words, “minimal marketing, careful budgeting, and consistently high-caliber performances.” It has become an international phenomenon, and now many festivals around the world, such as Sons d’Hiver in Paris, include in their programs a Vision night. As I pointed out when I MC’d the very first festival, “we” no longer have to travel to Europe to see/hear this music presented on such a grand scale at events like the FMP festival in Germany (though of course we have no objection to doing so). And now Europeans, as well as folks from all over the U.S., can come to the music’s main home, the heart of New York City. Every year more and more of them do.

Originally called the Vision for the Twenty-First Century Festival (a name it has certainly lived up to), the festival began at the Learning Alliance on Lafayette and Houston streets in 1996, moved to the Angel Orensanz Foundation—where it has been presented most frequently—and then to such venues as the basement of St. Nicholas of Myra Church in 1999, the former Electric Circus (New Age Cabaret) in 2000, the new Knitting Factory in 2001, then on to St. Patrick’s Youth Center, and now to Clemente Soto Velez on Rivington and Suffolk streets. The festival has spawned several spin-off series that continue year-round, and its parent organization, Art for Arts, has produced books, T-shirts, CDs, and DVDs centering around festival members and activities. Artists and local music businesses such as Downtown Music Gallery also sell their wares at concession tables at the festival.

Here’s a sampling of some past participants:

Musicians: Bill Dixon, William Parker, Fred Anderson, Milford Graves, Charles Gayle, Matthew Shipp, John Zorn, Thurston Moore, Yo La Tengo, Marilyn Crispell, Cat Power, Henry Grimes, Joelle Leandre, Dave Burrell, Sunny Murray, Daniel Carter, Cooper-Moore, Matt Maneri, Loren Mazzacanne Connors, Peter Kowald, Roscoe Mitchell, and Joseph Jarman.

Dancers: Yoshiko Chuma, Trevor Offut, K. J. Holmes, Gus Solomon, Jr., Patricia Nicholson, Elaine Shippman, Nancy Zendora, Maria Mitchell, Felicia Norton, and Miriam Parker.

Visual artists: Richard Nonos, Alain Kirili, Yuko Otomo, Luccio Pozzi, Kiki Smith, Stanley Whitney, Marilyn Sontag, Katie Martin, Jeff Schlanger, Chakaia Booker, Whitfield Lovell, Kazuko Miyamoto, Bill Mazza and Jo Wood Brown.

Photographers: Peter Gunishkin, Jacques Biseglia, Raymond Ross.

Poets/perfomers: Jayne Cortez, Amiri Baraka, Daniel Berrigan, Tracy Morris, Bob Holman, Edwin Torres, David Budbill, Chavisa Woods, Steve Cannon, Zero Boy.
Many of the above artists have also collaborated to create interdisciplinary works at various times.

This year’s Vision Festival will run June 10–15, and though, as in the past, it leans heavily toward music, it will as always present dance, poetry, and visual art as well. Two theaters will be employed, one for music, the other for dance and poetry, while both will exhibit two massive installations by Jo Wood Brown and Kazuko Miyamoto.

Some of the participants in Vision Festival 13 are: photographers Luciano Rossetti and Michael Wilderman; painters Bill Mazza and Jeff Schlanger; dancers Yoshiko Chuma, Miriam Parker, and K. J. Holmes; poets Bill Zavatsky, David Budbill, Amiri Baraka, and myself, with many more to be announced; and such musicians as saxophonist Oliver Lake (a co-founder of BAG., and a poet and visual artist as well), baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, saxophonist/flautist James Spaulding, legendary bassist Henry Grimes, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Mark Dresser, trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith and trombonist/electronics George Lewis (both co-founders of the AACM), violinist Billy Bang, saxophonist/english horn player Sonny Simmons, pianist Bobby Few, Connie Cruthers, and the much anticipated American premiere of William Parker’s Curtis Mayfield Project, which includes Baraka.

This year’s praise day focuses on the legendary New Orleans saxophonist, composer, and educator Kidd Jordan, now in his eighties like Dixon and Anderson. Amid a full evening of his music presented in many settings (with such powerhouses as Bang, Bluiett, Anderson, Parker, and Drake), Kidd will receive a lifetime achievement award. There will also be a set entitled New Orleans Pays Tribute, consisting of the likes of Donald Harrison paying their musical homage. This surely will be one of the major high points in the festival’s history.

As in previous years, there will be panel discussions, with wide-ranging topics that usually deal with the crises of art in the community, venues to create art in, the survival and independence of artists in a society that does little to support them, and how to reach out and spread this magic throughout the city and the world. There will also be an in-depth conversation on New Orleans and another on community development here in New York.

We all hope to aspire to the credo “In order to give peace, you must have peace” (as Albert Ayler so aptly put it), and that waging war in the name of peace is just not the paving stone of Unity. We all know that it’s about building, communicating, working together for the greater good, and playing together in a big band in the most musical, magical ways possible, in this big brutal sandbox we all live in.

Touching the spaces of people’s lives with the deepest chords imaginable and making connections, always connecting somehow: this is not scientific but is about the science of LOVE and deep friendship in all its possible combinations. JOY. ANGER. SADNESS. FRUSTRATION.

It’s about human beings searching in an ever-expanding world that, still in the twenty-first century, is out of touch with itself and has so little knowledge of its own creative forces and infinite possibilities for growth in a non-consumerist, productive way. It’s about seeking that way and finding that way.

It is almost miraculous (in the true sense of the word) that the Vision Festival is celebrating its thirteenth year. I’ve had “Visionitis” for quite some time, and I hope it never goes away. So I leave you with the usual chant: LISTEN. OPEN UP YOUR EARS and LISTEN.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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